Fiberglass-spinning robots could be construction workers of the future

The bots could be used for construction in remote places such as on the seafloor or in space

fiberglass pipes made by robots

TOTALLY TUBULAR Silkwormlike robots that spin strands of fiberglass into durable custom-shaped pipes (as seen above, holding up in winter weather) could someday help build infrastructure in deserts, on the seafloor or perhaps on other planets.

M. Kayser et al/Science Robotics 2018

Much like a silkworm uses a single thread to swaddle itself in a cocoon, a new kind of robot spins a single strand of material around its body to build custom-shaped fiberglass structures.

The new robots could create customized construction materials on-site, unlike other industrious bots that assemble premade building blocks (SN: 3/22/14, p. 8). Fleets of the fiberglass-spinning bots may someday erect buildings and bridges in remote or dangerous locations, researchers report online September 26 in Science Robotics.

Each robot, slightly larger than a 1-liter bottle, is girded by a silicone balloon and topped with an arm that turns like a propeller. To build a piece of piping, the robot’s arm winds resin-coated fiberglass thread around its puffed-up silicone belly. Ultraviolet light then hardens the resin and glues the fiberglass strands together. When the robot completes a 9-centimeter-long segment, its belly deflates and the machine scoots up the tube where the arm resumes spinning fiberglass. By tilting in a new direction, the bot can control how the tube bends.

a photo of the new silkwormlike robots with fiberglass spun around their bodies, and an image of fiberglass pipes created by the robots
SPIN CYCLE New robots (left) can spin fiberglass thread around their bodies in various patterns (right) to create pipes of varying thickness and curvature. M. Kayser et al/Science Robotics 2018

Designer and roboticist Markus Kayser and his MIT colleagues commissioned 16 of their fiberglass-spinning bots to build curved tubes up to 4.1 meters long. This bouquet of fiberglass pipes withstood seven months of Massachusetts autumn and winter weather — an “extremely impressive” demonstration of the bots’ capabilities, says Nathan Melenbrink, a roboticist at Harvard University.

The machines could join forces with other types of construction robots to build more sophisticated, multimaterial structures, says Radhika Nagpal, another Harvard roboticist. Robotic construction crews could create infrastructure in deserts, underwater or in other hazardous environments — perhaps even on other planets, she says.

The fiberglass-spinning bots currently are controlled by a computer and can build only predesigned structures. But future versions equipped with cameras, lasers or other sensors could coordinate and respond to obstacles to build site-specific structures on the fly. That may make them useful for propping up collapsed buildings during search-and-rescue operations, says Francesco Mondada, a roboticist at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.  

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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